Richard Rodney BENNETT (1936-2012)
Orchestral Works - Volume 4
Troubadour Music [4:24]
Concerto for Piano and Orchestra [24:20]
Country Dances [10:45]
Michael McHale (piano)
BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra/John Wilson
rec. 2019, City Halls, Glasgow, UK
CHANDOS CHSA5244 SACD [65:52]
“The particular genius of Sir Richard Rodney Bennett can seem, at times, impossible to pin down.” So writes Richard Bratby in his fine booklet essay for this fourth disc from Chandos exploring Bennett’s many and varied works for orchestra. Even in this single disc, the range of styles and musical imagination seems quite dizzying. We have the five jolly, tuneful and immediately appealing Country Dances of 2000-1 and the festive fanfare Troubadour Music of 2006, sitting against the spiky atonality of the 1968 Piano Concerto and the even more uncompromisingly dissonant wound-world of the Aubade of 1964, and culminating in the 11-movement Anniversaries which seems to encompass an even greater range of musical languages and styles.
Listening through this disc it is sometimes difficult to believe it is all the work of a single composer. Yet, while the language and stylistic territory covers a huge area, there is the unmistakable feeling that everything here is the work of a brilliant and highly sophisticated mind. I am not sure I would go so far as Bratby and use the word genius, but without a doubt Bennett was a hugely gifted and assured composer, sufficiently comfortable in his own musical skin-of-many-hues to live with the problems such stylistic peripateticism caused; neatly summarized by Bratby as being “not always helpful to his career”. Whether we like it or not, we do tend to feel more comfortable when we can categorise a composer, and when we have one like Bennett who defies any recognisable categorisation scheme, it is often easier simply to ignore him, or just go for the things we like and leave the rest alone. That’s why this series from Chandos is proving so useful; it obliges us to experience something of the totality of Bennett’s orchestral output.
As with the previous discs in the series, the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under John Wilson presents top-notch performances, which are as polished and assured as Bennett’s own music, and show a great deal of self-assuredness as they pass through this kaleidoscope of musical styles. In particular, in a field which includes recorded performances by the composer himself. the work’s original soloist, Stephen Kovacevich, and the outstanding Martin Jones, Michael McHale stands out as a compelling soloist in the Piano Concerto, and Wilson’s highly perceptive support as well as the balance between orchestra and piano combines to make this a highly recommended version.
We hear the BBC Scottish in great detail in Anniversaries, which takes the form of a concerto for orchestra – or rather a more grown-up version of Britten’s Young Person’s Guide. Each of the five “Episodes” focuses on a particular instrumental group (I am particularly taken by Episode 5 which highlights the brass, and can only admire Bennett’s instinctive and highly idiomatic writing), with each of the six surrounding movements offering some kind of commentary on the basic three-note theme on which the whole work is based. At the very end we get a little burst of “Happy Birthday”, reminding us that the piece was originally written as a 60th birthday present for both the BBC and also the American conductor Irwin Bazelon.